Schools' policies on background checking volunteers vary, fall short

WZZM 13's Alex Shabad and Emma Nicolas have been working for months to review what sort of background checks are given to school volunteers. Alex has the story

WEST MICHIGAN - Volunteers are a vital aspect of the public school system in Michigan, but that comes with a price.

WZZM's 13 Watchdogs broke the story back in July that the Berrien County Courthouse shooter, Larry Gordon, was also a volunteer at his daughter's school.

While there's no way the school could have known what this man was capable of, there is a way they could've kept him out of the school.

The Watchdog team spent the last few months determining how a criminal with a record like Gordon, 54, ended up around students, and how other school's policies on background checking volunteers compared.

The team uncovered that Allendale Public Schools wait half a decade before background checking a recurring volunteer.

Related: Courthouse shooter was school volunteer, prompts changes for background checks

"I would say five years is probably a bit too long," Tim Porterfield, an Allendale parent said.

Porterfield had no idea this procedure existed at his child's school.

Schools in Michigan are not required by law to do any sort of background checks on incoming school volunteers, yet the state recommends schools do so every 30 days.

Watervliet Elementary Schools Superintendent Kevin Schooley told us back in July that they had run a state background check on Gordon. But what they missed is his federal crimes including possession of a pipe bomb-- which landed him in jail for years.

Most schools in West Michigan do not carry out federal finger printing background checks due to the cost. The schools are able to run an allotted amount of free iCHAT backgrounds each year.

But we learned as a result of our story in July, Watervliet began carrying out federal finger print background checks on all volunteers -- this is paid for by the district.

Many schools throughout Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties refused to respond to our repeated inquiries about their policies.

Ottawa Area Intermediate School District Deputy Superintendent Julie Gillespie said that they sent out a survey asking about schools' policies and also received no responses.

"Of course they didn't want to talk," said state Senator Rick Jones.

Jones said he believes background checks should occur annually.

Grand Rapids Public Schools background check their volunteers every two years. Larry Johnson, the security director for Grand Rapids Public Schools told the watchdog team that if he could he'd prefer to do it more often. But Johnson said it's simply too time consuming and too costly.

"If school districts could run fingerprints for free, no cost, school districts would run them everyday," Johnson said.

Fingerprinting costs less than $100 per person, for districts like GRPS with thousands of volunteers -- this is simply too high of a price.

Jones said as a result of us bringing this to his attention he is open to proposing legislation on it next year. He said he believes every school should be fingerprinting volunteers.

"I would be willing to look at maybe the state funding that ... I certainly think it needs to be done," Jones said.

Johnson said the state needs to provide resources to allow districts to comply.

"When it comes to the safety of kids, I don't believe you can be too careful," Porterfield said.

(© 2016 WZZM)


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